When a friend has cancer

Monday 24 June 2019

Friendships often play a big part in our daily lives. More than acquaintances, friends are people who we like, value, admire and mutually respect.  Like all relationships, they may have their ups and downs, but friends form part of our world – making us who we are, and who we can identify with.

Your feelings when a friend has cancer

When a friend faces a crisis, it can also affect us. You may be feeling this now, if you have a friend who has cancer?  Often friends feel shocked and upset – and sometimes helpless, at the beginning. 

You may also be surprised at the depth of your own feelings.  You may feel angry, sad, anxious and guilty.  It can understandably feel unfair that someone you care about has to face cancer and its treatment.  Even though your friend’s cancer may be treatable, and that eventually they will get better, it can still feel life changing.  Sometimes a cancer may not be curable, and that be hard to think about.  Be kind to yourself, and allow time to process those feelings. 

Helping a friend with cancer

Whatever your feelings, it may be that your first instinct is to help in some way. It can be hard to know what to do for the best. Some people worry they’ll say or do the wrong thing, and sometimes hold back from offering their help and support. Each friendship is unique – and you know your friend best – often trusting your instincts will guide you through. Here are some tips to get you started:-

  • Your friend may tell you about their cancer, face to face, or you may hear it from other sources. They may not feel like talking about things much, but letting them know that you’re aware – and will be there for them, can help.  If you plan to visit them at home, ask permission to drop by.
  • Keep in touch regularly, maybe by phone, text or sending a card…letting you know you’re thinking of them. Sometimes they may not feel up to talking, but they’ll know you care.
  • Talk about what they want to talk about. It may be cancer and its treatments, but also they might like to talk about ‘normal’ things – chatting about work/the family/hobbies etc.  You may find they tire easily, so little and often contact, rather than prolonged visits. (see our section on talking to others about cancer)
  • Don’t tell them lots of stories about other people’s cancers. Their cancer is not your friend’s cancer – that’s unique to them. If your friend sounds low, whilst positivity helps, it can feel dismissive if people keep saying ‘think positive’ and ‘you’ll be fine’. Acknowledging things can feel scary sometimes, and listening, can be enough. It’s not OK to say that you know how they feel…more that you understand how hard things may be.
  • Offer help, but be specific – You may find your friend declines help, sometimes from pride, sometimes because they’re already getting support from family. However, pinning down something you can do – walking the dog, lifts to hospital, collecting the children from school, etc, may be gratefully received. If your friend has a partner/spouse, find out what might help them too.
  • Offer trips out – your friend can often still go out for coffee, or have a spell away from home. They might be up to having a short walk in the fresh air.  Alternatively, offer to take the children out for a few hours so they can have a rest/quiet time.
  • Co-ordinate help with other friends and family – between you all, you can help support your friend. There are apps to help co-ordinate care and support (see Jointly app, for example, from Carers UK).
  • It’s OK to laugh – share humour, laugh together.
  • Flexibility is key – any arrangements you make may change at short notice, or plans may be shifted.  Let your friend know that you understand, and re-arrange.
  • Plan things for the future – if appropriate, think about things your friend and you can look forward to in the future – something to look forward to after treatment has finished.
  • Treat your friend normally – they are still the person they always were – and cancer shouldn’t take over the friendship. 

Where Maggie’s can help

When a friend has cancer there are a mix of emotions created, as well as the urge to help and support a friend in need.  You may find that you need to talk about the issues your friend’s cancer has raised for you.  Maggie’s can offer emotional and practical advice, information and support, and help you recognise that what you’re feeling is normal.

You may also think about the support Maggie’s can offer your friend and her family. You’d be welcome to drop in and find out more.  You can also check out our online pages for information and support.

Useful links

How to be a friend to someone with cancer  American Cancer Society 

Supporting a friend who has cancer    Cancer.Net

What to say to someone who has cancer      Macmillan Cancer Support

What a friend can do   Cancer + careers

What can I do to help? 75 practical ideas for families and friends from cancer’s frontline (2010)   Deborah Hutton


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